Ronald Fernandez, Scholar on Plight of Puerto Ricans, Dies at 67

September 2, 2011

By PAUL VITELLO

September 2, 2011

Ronald Fernandez, a professor of sociology whose curiosity about a daring $7 million armored car robbery near his Connecticut home set him on a career path of scholarly investigation into the history of American colonialism in Puerto Rico, died on Tuesday in West Hartford. He was 67.

The cause was esophageal cancer, his wife, Brenda Harrison, said.

Dr. Fernandez was a recently minted Ph.D. teaching at Central Connecticut State College in 1983 when the robbery took place in a Wells Fargo armored car depot close enough to his house that he was detoured on the way home by police barricades. His initial idea was to write a book about the psychology of the bank robber.

But his research into the lives of the men identified by the F.B.I. as the masterminds of the heist, all of them members of a militant Puerto Rican independence group known as Los Macheteros, led Dr. Fernandez to a broader interest in the back story of the Macheteros’ cause: the long and, for most Americans, obscure history of disenfranchisement on the island of Puerto Rico, a subject he knew little about despite growing up in New York City, where about 800,000 Puerto Ricans now live.

Beginning with his 1987 book, “Los Macheteros: The Wells Fargo Robbery and the Violent Struggle for Puerto Rican Independence,” Dr. Fernandez wrote five books about Puerto Rico over the next decade. One, a history textbook, received an American Library Association award. The rest were deeply footnoted histories of American military and economic domination of a tiny island that has existed in a kind of limbo since becoming a United States possession in 1898, among the spoils of the Spanish-American War: neither colony nor part of the union.

The nearly four million residents of Puerto Rico are United States citizens, subject to federal taxes, but cannot vote in federal elections. They are represented by a nonvoting representative in Congress. Tax and regulatory exemptions given businesses based on the mainland raise perennial public complaints about environmental and economic exploitation.

“Ronnie recognized that this was very much a hidden history,” said Martín Espada, a poet and professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a friend of Dr. Fernandez’s. “It is not a history taught much at the high school or college level, so he became the foremost authority in the English language on colonialism and the independence movement in Puerto Rico.”

Besides being a history of the relationship between the United States and what is officially known as its “unincorporated territory” in the Caribbean, “Los Macheteros” was among the first published works to document F.B.I. efforts in the 1960s and ’70s to infiltrate and discredit lawful, nonviolent independence groups in Puerto Rico.

Disclosures by Dr. Fernandez and others set off a public outcry on the island, and prompted hundreds of civil rights lawsuits in the ’80s and ’90s by people claiming to have been blacklisted for participating in pro-independence activities. In 1999 the governor of Puerto Rico, Pedro J. Rossello, issued an official apology and established a compensation fund.

As for the 17 members of Los Macheteros who were eventually indicted in the Wells Fargo robbery — the largest in American history at the time and one in which no one was injured — 14 were captured and sentenced to prison, one was killed in 2005 in a shootout with the F.B.I. in Puerto Rico, one was arrested in May, and one, Victor Manuel Gerena, the Wells Fargo security guard who had handcuffed two co-workers and made off with the money, remains a fugitive.

“Ron walked the line between advocate and scholar,” said Ronald L. Kuby, a lawyer who represented a Wells Fargo defendant. “He really understood the spirit of the Puerto Rican people.”

Joseph Ronald Fernandez was born in Brooklyn on June 30, 1944, the son of Ernestina and Joseph Fernandez, both immigrants from Spain. His father worked in a factory.

Mr. Fernandez graduated from Xavier High School in Manhattan and Hunter College, and received a master’s degree in sociology from the New School for Social Research.

He met most of the requirements for his Ph.D. at the New School, then completed his doctorate at the University of Connecticut. He taught sociology throughout his career at what is now Central Connecticut State University, and established the Center for Caribbean and Latin American Studies there in 1992.

Besides his wife, he is survived by their three children, Adam, Carrie and Benjamin; three grandchildren; and a sister, Sally Walkes.

In the last decade of his life, Dr. Fernandez shifted his focus from Puerto Rico’s unique struggle for identity to the broader question of cultural and racial identity faced by all American Latinos. All, he said, suffer from the American obsession about race because they “can never fit into the racial boxes that officially divide us into whites, blacks and others.”

His last book, “America Beyond Black and White: How Immigrants and Fusions Are Helping Us Overcome the Racial Divide,” published in 2008, proposed that Americans adopt a more Caribbean attitude about race and ethnicity.

“Americans want Jamaicans or Puerto Ricans to think (and act) in black and white,” he wrote. “Qualifications never exist; you see skin color or you do not. When Caribbean people try to explain that their world is much more complicated, we too often write them off as hypocrites and miss one of the most remarkable features of life in many Caribbean nations: When it comes to race and ethnicity, they are among the most civilized people on earth.”